Washington — As he did with the air-traffic controllers strike, President Reagan is seeking to let the American people know that he won't be pushed around when he feels he is acting in their interest.
This is the interpretation here of Mr. Reagan's confrontation with Congress, which resulted in his veto of a bill that gave him only about $2 billion of the
Actually, the President had said he was willing to go ''halfway'' with Congress on this government-spending bill. Thus, Congress came within about $3 billion of what he would have accepted.
This is close enough to raise speculation among political observers here that Reagan was not too unhappy to have to use this veto, that he wanted to signal Americans that he was fighting hard in their behalf.
The President could have said that he wanted more cuts - and then signed the measure, saying that Congress had come close enough to his requested cuts. He could have said that his approval, although reluctant, was better than continuing to battle with Congress and opening the possibility of layoffs for thousands of federal workers.
Thus, as viewed here by some politicians of both parties, the Reagan veto was more symbolic than anything else.
It was an opportunity to suggest, in a dramatic way, that economy is flagging because Congress isn't cooperating.
It also was Reagan's opportunity to underscore to voters that he is a tough, decisive President.
Further, he could move into this confrontation with full confidence that he would be able to make his veto stick. Congress simply didn't have the votes to overturn it. Thus the President knew he was taking no risk of a quick, embarrassing veto override by Congress after this show of presidential macho.
''I suppose the President intended all along to use this for a confrontation with the Congress,'' said House Democratic leader Jim Wright of Texas. This feeling that Reagan was spoiling for a fight - or at least eager for a show of presidential strength - was expressed by a number of lawmakers.
From within the administration also came hints that the veto was part of the President's effort to regain his political momentum. One of the objectives of his new peace offensive in Europe has been to take the public's thought off of the dipping economy and Reagan personnel problems. The veto, as seen by the White House, could do the same.
But the President is playing high-risk politics. Observers point out that the veto may be the beginning of an estrangement between Reagan and Capitol Hill. If so, they assert, this may mean that the cooperation Reagan so sorely needs from Democrats in Congress may be waning.
Presidential watchers see Reagan losing a great deal of his goodwill with Congress in exchange for a minor veto victory, a short-term triumph, at best.
Some Reagan critics are accusing him of seeking headlines, of a rather meaningless, showboating gesture.
But, at least for the moment, the President is managing to look quite presidential. He is conciliatory with the Soviets and combative with Congress. All in all, even his critics concede, Reagan is giving the appearance of doing things and of being in charge.